Excerpt from Whitcomb Springs
Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
April 25, 1865
The letter fluttered to the table. Evelyn stared at the sheet of paper but could no longer make out the words as they blurred together. Surrender. She prayed this day would come, they all had, and after four tortuous years, the war was finally over.
There would be more capitulation on the part of the South, and too many families who would never see their men again . . . but it was over.
Separated, yet not untouched, from conflict, Evelyn Whitcomb lived in the same town her husband and their two friends founded one year before news of the Civil War reached them. By way of her sister, who lived in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania with their parents, they were kept informed as often as Abigail could get a letter through. Evelyn often wondered if she should have returned to Rose Valley to help with the war effort, much as her sister Abigail had done, yet she found the needs of Whitcomb Springs to be vast as the town continued to grow.
Many men and boys left, leaving their wives, mothers, and sisters behind to fight for a cause they didn’t fully understand, yet still felt it their duty to serve. Others remained behind to continue working in the mine and watch over those families with or without kin.
Evelyn read over Abigail’s letter once more, letting the words settle into her mind, for even now she struggled to believe it was over—that her husband might return home.
For too many years now I have shared with you the horrors and travesties befallen many of the young men with whom we spent our childhood. News has reached us that on the ninth of April, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Oh, sister, I dared not believe it was true when Papa brought home the news. He tells us not to become overly excited for there will surely be a few more battles waged until the news reaches both sides, but we can thank God that this war is officially over.
Your news of Daniel’s disappearance has weighed heavy on my mind these past months since we heard, and Papa has attempted to learn of his whereabouts, to no avail. We have not given up! There is much confusion right now on both sides and Papa said it could be weeks or months more before the men return home. Do not lose faith, sweet Evie.
Your most loving sister,
Evelyn pressed her face against her open handkerchief and wept against the cloth. The letter lay open on the table where it landed, for the moment forgotten. She did not have to witness smoke rising from destructed battlefields or watch neighbors’ homes burn to ash like they did in the battle-worn regions back east, but Whitcomb Springs had not been spared from the emotional onslaught. Three husbands and two young sons had been sent home to be buried, including Charles Carroll, one of their partners in the founding of the town and mine. She wrote to Daniel when news of Charles’s death reached his widow and young daughter, but Daniel did not respond for months, and even then it did not sound as though her letter about Charles’s death found him.
He spoke of his love for her and of life after the war. They’d moved away from Pennsylvania five years prior, but he and Charles had still considered it their duty to fight. Friends since childhood, they did everything together, and going to war was no exception.
Evelyn slammed her fist on the letter and freed four years’ worth of accumulated anger into her tears. As the town matriarch, even at her young age, Evelyn taught geography and history at the school, worked alongside the townspeople to establish a community garden, and offered whatever comfort she could to the wives and children whose men were lost or still away. She filled four years of days with enough activity to keep her too busy to feel the weight of the lonely nights. Alone now in the quiet of her parlor with her sister’s letter dotted in tears, Evelyn relinquished herself to grief and the flood of memories from a happier time.
June 15, 1860
“I wanted adventure, Daniel, but I do believe you’ve gone too far this time.” Evelyn dabbed her handkerchief against her neck. The air, still cool on the early summer day, warmed by degrees the farther they rode. It was her first time riding a horse outside a manicured park or gently sloping pasture, and the rough terrain proved to be more difficult than she’d originally credited.
Their guide, who went only by the name of Cooper, promised them what they’d see at the end of the trail would be worth the two days’ ride to get there. Evelyn had seen beautiful scenery, but nothing so far as to make her trust the man whose appearance was as untamed as the trail on which they now traveled.
“We’re almost there, Evie,” Daniel said. He urged his horse forward so he rode beside his wife.
“Didn’t I tell you the West was spectacular?”
“Yes, you did.” They were blessed with so much and yet they’d lost what was most important to them. Two children—sons—passed away shortly after their births, one year apart. They suffered together, mourned together, and dreamed together of a life far removed from their sorrows. He promised her adventure in a place grander than anything she’d ever seen. His promises were based on stories and reports of western expansion, and she loved him enough to believe in his dream as much as he did.
After weeks of train travel, cramped stage coaches, and a few months’ extended stay in Helena, Evelyn had endured enough dreaming. “Daniel, please tell our guide we must stop and rest.”
Daniel pulled his horse to a stop, called out to Cooper, and helped Evelyn down from the saddle. The muscles in her back and legs were of little help to hold her upright. Daniel kept her steady, and she leaned toward him. He stood half a foot taller than her five and a half feet. Never one to be considered strong, he was lean and in excellent health from years of horse riding and exploring the Pennsylvania hills. When he asked if she wanted to remain in Helena while he joined the scout, she’d been quick to assure him she could handle the journey.
Four days of stage, wagon, and horseback, and she’d kept her silence until now. As though sensing she didn’t want to get back on the horse, Daniel positioned an arm at her waist and told their scout they were going for a walk.
Cooper lifted the saddle off his horse and moved to do the same on the others. “Be sure you stick to the trail and don’t go so far I can’t hear you shout.”
Evelyn glanced back at Cooper, wondering what event would require them to shout, and thought better of asking. She walked alongside her husband, staying on the trail as told. A steady rushing creek followed the trail as it widened, then narrowed. When they turned a bend around a copse of pine trees thick with branches and lush green needles, Evelyn stopped.
“Daniel.” Her voice was a reverent whisper. She dropped his hand and stepped forward, her eyes moving back and forth over the landscape so as not to miss anything.
“I promised you, Evie.” Daniel stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. They were home.
Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
April 25, 1865
The Pioneer Mountains, still capped with snow, rose above the hills surrounding their valley and the town. Breathtaking had been the first word uttered from her lips when she and Daniel stood at the edge of the valley. Evelyn picked up where her husband left off, and together they succeeded in building the town Daniel dreamt of, a town that would prosper without destroying the land.
The road was made passable their first summer, with a lot of expense, time, and hard labor of strong men hired to help build the first cabins and a trading post. Daniel promised he would build her a grand house, and it was the last thing he finished before he left.
The trading post was now a general store. Homes and businesses lined the carefully mapped roads, and last year they finished the church. Evelyn wondered what Daniel would say about the town when he returned. Pleased and proud, she hoped.
A gentle yet insistent knock at her front door drew her slowly from her own worries. Though more than two weeks had passed since the surrender, some would have heard the news and shared it with others until the whole town new. They did not have a telegraph or a post office yet, and letters from the East did not always reach them quickly. Townsfolk had families in the North and others in the South, yet here in Whitcomb Springs, they took no sides in the conflict of politics of war.
Evelyn blotted the tears away, took a few deep breaths, and rose from the chair. She wavered and kept herself upright by leaning on the table. Once her legs stopped trembling, she walked through the hall into the foyer. The knocking ceased, but a face pressed against the glass in the window, a cherub’s face with red cheeks and wide brown eyes, surrounded by a halo of wispy blond hair.
The young girl waved and stepped back when Evelyn opened the door. “Missouri Woodward, you appear to have been in a spot of trouble.” She looked over the girl’s dusty dress, muddy boots, and a shawl covered in leaves.
Missouri grinned. “Monroe said girls couldn’t climb trees because we’re too puny.”
“And you proved him wrong.”
The six-year-old bobbed her head and straightened her shawl. “Mama won’t be mad when I tell her. She says girls are just as cap . . .”
“Capable,” Evelyn said while holding back a grin of her own.
“That’s it. Mama says girls can do anything they want.”
Evelyn believed Missouri’s mother, a learned woman from Charleston and supporter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the women's rights movement, would teach her daughter to stand up for herself, but she also knew Lydia Woodward to be a lady of impeccable taste and manners. Evelyn held the door open and invited Missouri inside. “Your mother will understand, but even so, let’s clean you up a little before you go home, and you can tell me what brought you to my door this morning.”
Evelyn helped Missouri clean off her leather boots and remove the leaves and twigs from the shawl. She managed to wipe away some of the dust from the dress, but evidence of her shenanigans remained. From one of the few families in town of old money, Lydia Woodward had remained in Whitcomb Springs with her two children—Missouri and her older brother, Monroe—after her husband returned to Charleston to fight for the Southern cause. Lydia may have supported the beliefs of Elizabeth Stanton and feminist reformers, but she avoided the topic of reform when around Evelyn.
Women’s rights were inevitable, this she believed, yet to speak of such things while her husband and so many other men and boys were at war somehow seemed disloyal to their sacrifices. From an established and wealthy family in Pennsylvania herself, Evelyn had everything she ever wanted, and her father encouraged an education beyond needlework and home management for his daughters. The stifling existence women like Lydia spoke of was foreign to Evelyn.
Even now, thousands of miles from home, she had both money and property. And she would give up both if only to have her husband back in her arms, to wake in the morning with him beside her, and to know he was safe—to know they would grow old together. She smoothed out Missouri’s skirts and declared the girl fit enough to return home.
“Wait, Missouri. What brought you here, besides your dusty clothes?”
“Mama said Papa is coming home soon. Since you know everything and I guessed maybe if you said he was really coming home, it would be true.”
Evelyn leaned back in the chair at the kitchen table and studied the girl. Hope, a useful commodity in the hands of the right person. Missouri Woodward possessed it in abundance. How to speak the truth without quashing hope? Evelyn wondered. If there was one way to quickly spread news of the surrender to those who had yet to hear, it was Missouri. “What has your mother told you about where your father has been these past years?”
“Protecting South Carolina. It’s where I was born, and Mama said her mama and papa live there, but I don’t get to see them anymore. I want to see them, but Mama said when Papa comes home we can go for a visit, so I really want Papa to come home.”
It was not her place to explain the war to someone else’s child, or to reveal the realities of life and death, so Evelyn chose her next words carefully. “Your father and many other fathers and brothers and sons are protecting their homes, but what caused them to fight is over now.”
“Does that mean they’re coming home?”
“Some of them will, and others won’t.”
The big brown eyes looked up at Evelyn. “You mean like when Mary’s papa came back, and we all went to the cemetery?”
Evelyn lowered herself to the girl’s level and squeezed Missouri’s hands. “We don’t know what comes next. However, we need to be strong for each other, no matter what. And you have so much hope in you; hold onto it.”
Missouri nodded and fell against Evelyn. Her eyes remained dry, yet she held herself close for a few minutes before leaning back. “Sally Benson said my papa might not come home. Her mama is taking them back to . . .”
Evelyn kept her sigh silent in the face of frustration. She’d heard of the Benson’s decision to return to their native Georgia a few days ago. They were one of the families where husband and father had died, but there was no body left to send home.
“Missouri, I want you to promise me something.”
“All right, Mrs. Whitcomb.”
“No matter what you hear or what others say, remember to listen to your heart. Be strong and brave and never let anyone tell you your hopes are impossible.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Whitcomb.”
Evelyn kissed the girl’s cheek and said, “You will. Now run along to your mother. She’ll wonder where you’ve gone.”
With a quiet “thank you” and another quick hug, Missouri exited the house. Evelyn watched her run down the front walk and pass the beds of flowers eager to sprout and bloom before she remembered to slow down. One day soon, Evelyn thought, young girls will run and jump and play in the dirt without worrying if their fathers or brothers were coming back to them.
She stood on her wide front porch of the beautiful home Daniel had built, nestled in the untouched Montana valley. After four years of living without her husband, not knowing if he’d return to her, Evelyn still sought comfort from standing on the porch and looking up at the towering peaks. A few townspeople turned soil, preparing the community garden for seeds. Everyone who lived in town spent a few hours a week taking turns in the garden, and everyone reaped the benefits.
The community had been her family these long years, and she knew how blessed she was to want for nothing while others struggled. The garden had been a way to fill a need. She supplied the tools and seeds and looked forward to her turn to tend to the beds. The simple task of planting and watching the vegetables and flowers grow was a rewarding task.
She hired two of the young widows, Harriet Barker and Tabitha Armstrong, to help with her personal gardens and tend the house. Both women lived in rooms on the second floor, rooms that remained vacant and too quiet after Daniel left.
“Mrs. Whitcomb!” Lilian Cosgrove, who lived with her wounded husband in a small cottage on the other side of the meadow, hurried up the walkway. “Evelyn, please come quickly to the church.”
Evelyn darted a glance down the road, but didn’t see or hear a reason for Lilian to look flushed or to carry the heavy burden of worry in her eyes.
“Lilian, what’s happened?”
Lilian darted a glance to the family across the way in the garden and lowered her voice. “There’s something you need to see in the church. Ever since Reverend Mitchum left to tend that orphanage in San Francisco, Jedediah has been keeping a watch on the church, as you know. Today he found . . . oh, please come.”
Bemused, though not surprised as Lilian had a tendency toward melodrama, Evelyn followed the woman down the street, past the small hotel, and into the meadow where the church stood. Daniel and Evelyn always meant for it to be a place of solace for anyone who stepped through its doors. It wasn’t uncommon to find people passing through town, spending a few minutes inside before they moved on.
“Lilian, what is going on?” Evelyn stepped into the dimly lit building. The gray skies outside blocked much of the natural sunlight the row of windows often let into the church.
“You’ll see, in the back.”
Evelyn followed her friend to the back room where the reverend once lived. Sitting around the scarred table was a man, a woman, and a young boy, who looked no more than four years old, nestled on his mother’s lap. Jedediah Cosgrove stood in front of the only exit.
The man at the table started to stand but quickly took his seat again. Evelyn moved her eyes to look at the man’s legs. One appeared to be confined in a wooden leg brace. “Please, there’s no need to stand.” She took in the frightened expressions of the mother and child and looked at the others.
“What’s going on, Jedediah?”
“Jed saw her stealing from our garden,” Lilian said. “He followed her here and found them living in these rooms.”
Disappointment flooded through Evelyn’s heart. She would speak with her friends later, but now, the couple and their children needed tending.
“There is no reason to be afraid. What are your names?”
The man again attempted to stand, but his wife pressed him down with a gentle touch and passed him their son. “Corbel. I’m Olive and my husband, Levi. This is our son, Elijah. We didn’t mean any harm.”
Evelyn was quick to reassure her. “I’m sure you didn’t. I see you’re injured, Mr. Corbel.”
Olive spoke instead of Levi. “My husband doesn’t speak, ma’am, not since . . .” she looked at her man, “. . . since he came home.”
“I’m Evelyn Whitcomb.” Evelyn turned to Lilian and Jed. “Thank you, Lilian, and Jed, it’s okay. Please leave us. I’d like to speak with the Corbels.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Lilian asked.
Evelyn fought back the sadness at her friend’s words. “Yes, I’m sure. I would like to visit with the Corbels alone for a few minutes. I’ll come see you afterward.” She rarely used her place in the community as a voice of authority, but when she did, those around her offered no argument. Evelyn waited until she heard the front doors of the church close.
When she faced the family again, Olive was still standing. “May I sit with you?”
Surprise replaced wariness and Olive nodded. Once Evelyn sat in the only empty chair, Olive followed suit. Evelyn said, “I’m sorry for my friends’ behavior. They’re protective when it comes to strangers.”
“I shouldn’t have stolen from them.” Olive lifted her son back onto her lap. “We were traveling and sorry to say, we found ourselves off the trail.”
“That’s not difficult to do up here.” Evelyn studied each of them, the gaunt faces and mended clothes. They were clean, indicating Olive’s close care of her family. “Does the leg pain you, Mr. Corbel?”
He shook his head. “I can take it, ma’am.” She barely caught his words. The hoarse whisper lost what little volume it had between them.
Evelyn cast a surprised look in Olive’s direction. Olive explained, “I didn’t tell you a falsehood, Mrs. Whitcomb. It’s easier, you see, for people to think . . . Levi was scarred something fierce, and it pains him to speak.”
“I am not accusing you of misleading me, not at all. How was he injured, if it’s not too impertinent to ask?”
Olive and her husband exchanged a silent look, and he nodded once. Olive said, “He fought for the Confederacy. There was an explosion, but Levi prefers not to talk about it, ma’am. Not the explosion or the war.”
“Please, call me Evelyn. And it’s all right, I shouldn’t have pried. Please accept my apologies. My husband hasn’t returned home, and I don’t know if he will, so I do understand a bit of what your family has suffered. Where are you going, if I may ask?”
“We’re from Texas. When Levi was . . . after he returned, we lost our farm. We came north, heard there were opportunities up here, been finding work where we can.” Olive sat higher in the chair, her back straightening as she held her son closer. “Are you going to turn us over to your sheriff?”
“As it happens, we don’t have a sheriff right now.”
“But we saw—”
“A sheriff’s office, yes. We’re a growing town and like to plan for the future.”
“We saw a sign when we came into town: Whitcomb Springs. Is that you?”
Evelyn nodded. “My husband is Daniel Whitcomb. This town was our dream.” Evelyn stood. “It’s a place for new beginnings, if that’s what you’re after.”
All three pairs of eyes met hers. Levi said in his whispered words, “Mrs. Whitcomb?” Those two words asked far more than a confirmation of her name. She couldn’t help Daniel except with prayers, and right now she believed these people needed her attention more.
“These rooms are yours to use while you decide what to do next. There’s a well out back and I’ll have clean linens, food, and changes of clothes brought over. If you choose to leave, at least you will be rested. If you choose to stay, we will find a place for you and discuss your options.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs.—Evelyn.”
“It’s our way, Mrs. Corbel. There’s work for those who are willing to work hard and there’s a home here for those in search of one. Life in Whitcomb Springs is not always easy. It’s rewarding, and the community is strong, and most importantly, it’s ours.” Evelyn saw from the way they looked at her that she’d given them enough to think about. “I’ll send someone along with the items I mentioned. If you’d like to visit again, my house is down the north road past the general store. I would like to help if you’ll let me.”
Evelyn left them to their privacy. She didn’t know if she’d see them again or if in the night they planned to disappear in hopes of reaching a new destination. Either way, there was another matter to tend, one she dreaded.
Lilian and Jed weren’t waiting outside. She walked to the edge of the meadow and crossed the bridge over a narrow point of Little Bear Creek. They stepped outside when she approached.
“Have then gone?” Lilian asked.
“They are welcome here, Lilian, as you and Jed were five years past.”
“They stole from us.”
Evelyn’s heart ached at the other woman’s harsh words. “True, and I suspect they will repay you in any way they can. Where is your charity, Lilian, and yours, Jed? You were injured and by grace you came home to your wife. Others have suffered far more. Olive had a son to feed and only a mother’s desperation would have had her committing a crime, but it is a minor one. She stole food from your garden to feed her son, food that can be replaced. They are to be forgiven.”
Jed stepped forward, chagrined. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Whitcomb. You’re right. I don’t reckon I know what would have become of Lilian and me if we hadn’t found this town, or if I hadn’t come back to her.”
“But I ain’t never stolen.”
“I see.” And Evelyn did.
Lilian held a white cloth in one hand and her other still showed evidence of flour from baking. “This town isn’t for people like them. We’ve worked too hard.”
Evelyn fought back tears for the loss of two people she’d called friends—family, even. “I know well enough what kind of people belong in this town. People like the Corbels. These mountains that surround us, the valley where we build our homes and grow our crops, don’t belong to us. We put our name on a sign and erected this town. We burrowed into the earth so the mine could support the town and the people in it, and when we’re done, we do everything we can to make the land whole again. We don’t take what we don’t need, and we give what we can. That has always been Whitcomb Springs.” Evelyn walked away, stopped after a few feet and looked back at them. “At what point did you forget?”
End of Excerpt